Imagine that you are on the train. You’re sitting down and trying to read an Alliance Française blog post on your phone but you can’t help but get distracted by those around you. The man across from you is loudly eating a ham sandwich. The woman next to you yawns and suddenly it strikes you how you also need to yawn.
Some theories suggest that you are feeling the urge to yawn because of your mirror neurons. On a mechanical level, mirror neurons are neurons that have been observed to fire both when you do something and when you see someone else do the same thing. They are known to exist in humans and other primates (and maybe more) and while they are thought to originally be a simple survival mechanism, they have developed into a facilitator of culture, language learning and empathy.
Mirror neurons are a big part of what allows babies to copy facial expressions and later replicate sounds and language and all of the cultural norms that go along with learning. Babies gather endless things to mimic and later cut some behaviors and sounds to most effectively fit into the culture(s) they are being raised in.
In some ways, adults learning a new language are not too different. When you learn a new language you aren’t just learning the words and grammar structures in a vacuum. If you are learning a language fully, you are learning about the cultures related to the language and the tiny mannerisms that make up the meat of interaction and understanding the similarities and differences between that culture and others.
When you first try to replicate the sounds of a foreign language and mannerisms of a different culture it is very possible that you might make a few mistakes along the way. While this might make you cringe in the moment, this is actually essential to you learning effectively. By making these mistakes you know what not to do and you hone your skills more specifically on a specific culture similar to the aforementioned babies. Making mistakes and learning from them in language learning causes you to develop a higher tolerance of ambiguity and this in turn helps make you a more empathetic person in general.
Increase your empathy and sign up for a French class at the Alliance today! Just in time for the 2nd four-week session of the season!
We’ve discussed just a few of the major theories of mirror neurons here and there is still a ton to learn about the nervous system and how it relates to language learning and empathy. Here are our sources if you want to read about this topic more in depth: